Editor's Note: This article first appeared in The Hill on October 26, 2019.
Young people extolling socialism have caused conservatives to sound alarms about the direction the country is going. But the reappearance of socialism is more a sign of a wide partisan divide than it is evidence that people want to change America’s economic system.
When Democratic lawmakers and left-leaning spokespeople talk about socialism — or democratic socialism — they’re not talking about changing the means of production. When your college sophomore nephew expresses some sympathy for socialism at Thanksgiving dinner, he’ll likely be talking about just expanding the social welfare programs that already exist and maybe importing others from Europe.
We’ve already got a lot of this kind of socialism in America. There’s Social Security and Medicare, and states keep mandating that businesses offer paid leave to employees. When the people on the left talk glowingly of socialism, they tend to talk about a socialism that is a couple large steps down the path of bigger government.
When young people invoke socialism, however, conservatives hear something else. To them, socialism represents a different economic system where the state owns the means of production and the political system distributes the value created by production. The socialism they know is a failed experiment that resulted in atrocities committed by authoritarian regimes against their own citizens. Embracing socialism seems sinister, and something that no rational person should ever consider.
Socialism as big government and socialism as state-controlled economic enterprise are radically different concepts. So, it’s important to note that what is heard might not be what the person means on both sides.
Yet the return of “socialism” means something. For one, it means that conservatives have tarnished big government ideas to young people so much that the youth have rebranded them. It’s not a liberal program anymore; it’s socialism.
That can explain why it sounds like younger people are embracing socialism — older people are attached to the labels of big government that left a bad taste in younger people’s mouths.
Conservatives ought to be comforted by another thing. I could be wrong about this, but I don’t hear that younger people are interested in using the state to reform society to their will. There’s been a lot of that in the past — a call for a complete overhaul of society through political means. But the socialism of younger people today sounds nothing like that.
It’s not a call for a new French Revolution, but rather a call for a couple of steps towards bigger government. They don’t want to overthrow the rich, just tax them some more. Many want to adopt the policies of Scandinavian countries or other places that sound wealthy and to the left of America. But those places have property rights, markets, individual freedom and the rule of law, even with other redistributive policies and government mandates.
Sure, extremists are around and they make the news. There are real people on the far left, and the kind of socialism they want is exactly the kind that conservatives think they mean.
The socialism-embracing youngsters who defy such extremism ought to be more careful with the term. Socialism is not a term of persuasion. It’s a term that unites its allies and repels its enemies. The term can be used to attract the kind of people who are inclined to support socialism while doing the opposite for others.
This is what ought to upset Americans about socialism’s reemergence. It’s a sign that what people want from the political debate is to animate and mobilize against their enemies, instead of persuading their peers.
Americans ought to reject this tendency. It is a large country and it’s easier to keep it together when people carry around the assumption that their fellow Americans have dignity even when their politics are different. When enemies are treated as though they lack dignity, they are treated as people to be overcome, not people to be persuaded.
Until we seek more to persuade than to rabble-rouse, we’re going to be left with people proclaiming the virtues of socialism. One way out of this mire is to understand that the person spouting its benefits might not actually mean what you think they mean. And in understanding each other, we get closer to a world where political debate is an attempt to persuade rather than to overcome.
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